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Dec 9, 2010

Welcome to the internet wars

The attacks on WikiLeaks have sparked a war on the internet and it has immediately exposed has fragile key systems can be.

Whoever christened the WikiLeaks saga the first major war over the internet was right. Quite apart from what you’re seeing in the mainstream media, the internet equivalent of a shooting war has broken out and shows no signs of dying down.

The online group Anonymous – usually, but somewhat erroneously christened “hacker activists” by the mainstream media – have launched a series of attacks on the websites of those associated with the campaign against Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Targets under “Operation Payback”, coordinated via an IRC channel and Twitter, have included Joe Lieberman’s website, Sarah Palin’s website and the website of the Swedish prosecution service responsible for handling the s-xual assault case against Assange.

In the last 24 hours, however, it’s stopped being quite so symbolic. Yesterday Anonymous coordinated a distributed denial of service attack on Mastercard’s corporate website, www.mastercard.com, and took it offline for several hours. More to the point, the attacks took Mastercard’s Securecode service offline as well, preventing transactions from being processed. The website has since got back online.

This morning it was Visa’s turn. Anonymous gave a full hour’s notice via its Twitter account @Anon-Operation that it was going to target Visa. At 8am, the tweet went out:

“TARGET: WWW.VISA.COM: FIRE FIRE FIRE!!! WEAPONS.”

They didn’t miss. The Visa site went down almost instantly, and stayed down for nearly three hours.

Twitter had by this stage woken up to the fact that its service was being used to coordinate DDOS attacks and suspended @anon_operation (Facebook had removed another Anonymous-related page earlier in the day). Anonymous was already using multiple accounts and immediately created another one, @anonops. Twitter’s action prompted participants to turn their attention to the service itself, and Twitter itself came under fire.

At that point, Anonymous appeared to secure a significant victory. Twitter was said to have advised that the deletion was “accidental” and restored the suspended account (minus previous tweets), although another ANonymous-related account remained suspended. The new account, @anonops, continued to operate. The attack on Twitter was then called off, and www.visa.com briefly went down again as the attack as redirected back at Visa.

A short while later the group declared via @anonops “IRC is not secure do not use unauthorized channels for operation #payback. We will announce next target here!! http://bit.ly/1hSngD #anonops”. Presumably law enforcement agencies had by this stage accessed the channel (it’s accessible if you know whom to ask and are happy to have the Federal Police start paying attention to you).

Meantime, in an unrelated development, PayPal had succumbed to criticism and released donations to Wikileaks.

Throughout, the mainstream media desperately tried to keep up. “Do you know more? email us” implored Fairfax, whose journalists took to haunting the birthplace of Anonymous, the 4chan site (warning – DEFINITELY NSFW) to find out what was going on. The coverage looked all a bit redundant, though, given much of what was going on was being played out under the Twitter hashtag #anonops.

This may look like a bunch of kids fooling around on the internet (one tweeter compared it to a “geek action movie”) but it’s altogether more serious than that. In the space of 24 hours two of the world’s key transactional sites have been taken offline. In the case of Visa, the company was actually given warning that it would be attacked, and yet it was still taken down for several hours. If we’re talking “critical infrastructure”, as per the WikiLeaks cables of earlier this week, we’ve had a clear demonstration of where it is on the internet.

This is the flipside of war against WikiLeaks being waged by the US Government and its proxies. Taking away its access to servers and taking away its financial conduits has undoubtedly harmed the organization – probably more so than arresting Julian Assange. It shows that, for all the decentralization of the internet, you can exploit the corporate control of key elements of the internet, particularly of financial transactions, to inconvenience or disrupt the operations of even an online entity. The further the balance tips toward private, corporate control of key online systems, the easier it becomes for governments – and other forces of centralised control, like large companies – to strike back at online opponents.

But it cuts both ways. The fragility of those transactional systems is suddenly on display with the successful attacks on Visa and Mastercard. Private control of key systems can be a vulnerability as well as a strength. And what’s been happening to key transactional systems in Australia in recent days? No one targeted NAB’s website – it managed to take itself offline without any help from “hacktivists”, causing massive financial disruption to its customers.

We’ve become dependent on online systems that are assumed to be both secure and resilient. Suddenly they look fragile, capable of disruption not just at the hands of Anonymous, but because of under-investment, or incompetence, or a single corrupted file.

There’ll doubtless be a lot of rubbish written about the Anonymous attacks, from both sides, in coming hours and days. There’ll be a strong sense of “the internet has fought back” from supporters, and law enforcement-flavoured outrage from opponents, governments and the mainstream media.

But at least one lesson is already clear – on the internet, the “critical infrastructure” may not be as resilient and stable as we all assume it is.

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22 comments

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22 thoughts on “Welcome to the internet wars

  1. Pete from Sydney

    may be time to head back to the safety of print…

  2. Dean

    Like (I imagine) many people, I’m somewhat conflicted about wikileaks itself.

    But these attacks by Anonymous seem like a pretty dumb idea to me. What do they think the outcome is going to be? If anything, all it will do is cement in the corporate minds of Visa and Mastercard that wikileaks is an “illegal” organisation and that they did the right thing in cutting them off.

    And so http://www.visa.com goes down for a few hours, so what? In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty paltry “attack”. The website comes back up after a few hours, then it’s business as usual again: sorry for the inconvenience.

    It just seems to me that this sort of thing harms wikileak’s image MUCH more than it helps.

  3. ParnassusMD

    DDoS attacks on HiVis sites like Mastercard/Visa/Paypal is more to do with propaganda and media attention than real damage to the online economy.
    The real story here is the apparent willingness of hundreds – potentially thousands – of individuals to ‘volunteer’ their computers to act as ‘Bots’ to conduct the DDoS attacks.
    With the instructions readily available online – even my 80 year old mother is capable of ‘volunteering’!

  4. Pete

    “the fact that its service was being used to coordinate DDOS attacks”
    orly? I found the tools and the setup info n everything without using Twitter. I’m not sure who’s wrong in stating this ‘fact’, Bernard or Twitter or AnonOps. Oh well. #andthereitrests

  5. Perry Gretton

    Modern warfare:

    ‘“TARGET: http://WWW.VISA.COM: FIRE FIRE FIRE!!! WEAPONS.”

    They didn’t miss. The Visa site went down almost instantly, and stayed down for nearly three hours.’

  6. ninetenthsofthelaw

    Suggesting the federal police are “paying attention” to everyone in the (numerous) IRC channels is either laughable, or these police have far too much time on their hands.

  7. zut alors

    How long before we rue the phasing out of bank passbooks…

  8. kennethrobinson2

    Help, can someone help this old warrior get in on the action, I really am not very computer savvy, but hell I would like to make my computer available to take down these , political masters, they are supposed to serve us, not the other way around.
    By crikey, lets take our country back, after we are the voters, and financiers of these people, next thing the Stars and Stripes will be flying over parliament house.

  9. bsg

    The internet is a living organism, its sort of self aware, and “anonymous” is part of its immune system (whether thats good or bad is debatable).

    The reason there has been so much “success” in taking wikileaks off-line (hosting, DNS) is that generally, those sort of actions – censorship – have not raised the ire of the net community in the past, due to the fact that no-one has really attempted to take sites offline.

    Now the community will adapt. anonymous has “chosen” to become more organized, and will rapidly out arms-race its opposition. Others will build infrastucture, or software, that will preserve wikileaks.

    Services on the internet are fragile? Of course they are. Protecting centralized services like that against concerted attack is probably impossible.

  10. Socratease

    @kennethrobinson2,

    Help, can someone help this old warrior get in on the action, I really am not very computer savvy, but hell I would like to make my computer available to take down these, political masters , they are supposed to serve us, not the other way around.

    Be careful what you wish for. Handing over the use of your PC for use as a remote robot of some unknown person is not a wise thing to do.